John Marino’s strong start with the Devils: What does it mean for Damon Severson?


The Devils were positioned to have a spicy offseason with hopes of adding a top-six winger and a No. 1 goaltender. Both were addressed in what wasn’t even their splashiest move of the summer. 

Instead, that was a trade with the Penguins — one that sent Ty Smith and a 2023 third-round pick to Pittsburgh in exchange for John Marino. 

Marino’s career got off to a strong start for the Penguins, in a year where many NCAA defensemen shined as rookies. The Pittsburgh defender was one of the more quietly effective of the bunch, and that strong play made him a standout in his own way. But his play started to plateau, and the team looked to make a few major changes in their blue line which required moving some salary. 

That brought Marino to New Jersey. And very quickly, he’s become a pivotal part of this blue line. 

Through 19 games, Marino’s averaged 21:40 all-situation minutes which trails only Dougie Hamilton by three seconds. After his first handful of games, his ice time spiked while fellow righty Damon Severson saw his numbers trend in the opposite direction. Now, Marino plays about 35.9 percent of the available five-on-five minutes to lead the team and is first in penalty-kill usage (57.8 percent of the available ice time). 

It’s not just a matter of absorbing a lot of minutes, but a challenging workload. Marino, alongside Ryan Graves on the second pair, is tasked with taking on top competition at five-on-five. Their minutes rise when the Devils have to protect a one-goal lead, and they’re often deployed in the defensive zone to start a shift. Overall, the Devils have generated about 56 percent of the expected goals share with Marino on the ice in those five-on-five minutes. It doesn’t pop that much, relative to his teammates, and his play over this last stretch plays into it. His numbers have come down to Earth a bit more after the latest stretch, as the Devils’ competition has gotten steeper. Still, the team’s outscoring opponents 17-7 in that time, and key defensive efforts from Marino have played into it. 

Take Monday night’s matchup against the Oilers. Marino saw Connor McDavid at five-on-five for 10:40 of the game. In that time, the Devils had a slight edge in shot attempts (11-10) and kept the Oilers to just four scoring chances. That was particularly true in the third frame, while New Jersey was defending their lead. Despite McDavid’s attempts to take the game over on the rush, Marino used his stick to disrupt the generational center’s rush attempt. 

Not long after, thanks to his positioning and strength, the Devils defender slowed down McDavid in transition and pushed him to the outside to keep him away from the scoring areas. 

While Marino was in a better position to stop that first McDavid rush at the blue line, his skating helps him get back against skaters in transition when there’s a bit more distance to travel to catch up to the play.

Those defensive plays help the Devils turn play around — whether with his positioning or stick work. In some instances, Marino makes the puck recovery, and his teammates move the puck back up the ice. 

Other times, Marino makes the defensive play and then skates it out himself.  

Marino isn’t the most offensive defenseman, but has chipped in offensively this season as well. Even without the scoring, he’s not entirely a one-dimensional shutdown defenseman thanks to his ability to help break the puck out of his own zone. But he can still read plays in other situations, like this against the Blue Jackets, to know when to jump in play to create offense. 

Thanks to Marino’s efforts and stability on the Devils’ blue line, he’s earned top-four minutes and a key role. But his strong play sparks a key question: What does it mean for Damon Severson?

So far it’s meant a bump down to the third pair seeing as Graves and Marino are the middle pairing in New Jersey. But there’s a ripple effect in the long term as well. 

As it was, there were some questions on how the Devils would proceed with the pending free agent. It was a storyline last year because the team could have chosen to flip him at the 2022 deadline to a team looking for two playoff runs out of the righty. A move obviously would have weakened the team’s blue line, but heightened the return versus moving him this year or letting him walk as a free agent. 

A year ago, Severson was playing crucial all-situation minutes. He was one of their most valuable defensemen, along with Jonas Siegenthaler, who could have been a part of this team’s next playoff window. But this year the blue line’s a bit different. Hamilton’s having a bounce-back year and looks like the No. 1 the Devils signed him to be. And now there’s Marino in the fold. So there are a few key considerations off the bat when it comes to Severson’s future. 

  1. The cost efficiency of that next contract.
  2. The amount of cap that will be locked up on the right side.
  3. How a lengthy contract to Severson blocks the path of incoming prospects at the NHL level.

Severson will be 29 when his next contract kicks in and aging curves tell us that defenders tend to decline into their 30s. So initially, this deal will pay for current performance, but very quickly slides into paying for past instead of future. At a low cap hit, that really wouldn’t be a problem. But anything upward of his current cap hit of about $4.17 million — which is likely what he’s seeking — with any significant term, could get tricky. If he’s going to remain on the third pair behind Hamilton and Marino, there are even more cost-efficiency concerns. 

And how much money should the Devils have tied up in the right side of their blue line alone? At the top of the depth chart, there’s Hamilton and his $9 million cap hit. Now, there’s Marino at $4.4 million, on average, for another four years. It’s not the most financially sound decision to pile onto that one area, when the team is going to have to spend elsewhere in the near future — like next summer on Jesper Bratt’s next contract. 

So from a money perspective alone, adding a Severson raise to this mix doesn’t make much sense. Then there’s the future of the right side of the blue line to consider. Simon Nemec, the second pick in the 2022 draft, is right-handed. Left-handed Luke Hughes can skate on the right side, too. So locking up Severson for any lengthy term could block their paths at the NHL level, considering the term already extended to Hamilton and Marino ahead of him on the depth chart. 

Right now, management really doesn’t have to do anything about the situation. The team’s in the midst of a 13-game win streak, and thriving as is. If they’re still in a playoff position and look like legitimate contenders when the deadline rolls around, the easiest solution is keeping Severson as an internal rental and punting the decision until summer. That allows the team to keep assessing Marino in his role, and ensure that his play doesn’t start to plateau or change in direction.

If New Jersey’s case for the playoffs weakens by then, it’s possible management is a bit more aggressive and moves Severson sooner than later. That could bring in assets necessary to put the team in a better, more sustainable position the next year. 

The Devils could wait and see how their prospects are developing, and act with those timelines in mind — maybe one will be ready for the spring to play on the third pair. 

Or maybe another team makes it worthwhile for the Devils to think about this sooner than later. There are a number of teams around the league who could use reinforcements on the back end, granted the return helps the Devils enough now (and in the future). Tonight’s opponent, the Maple Leafs, could be in search of defensive depth after losing a few of their blueliners to injury. The Senators surely could use help back in their own zone, as well. Vancouver doesn’t have enough strong personnel, either. The Capitals or Blues could use the help, too. 

The Devils are in the driver’s seat here, especially if management has no qualms with the risk of losing him for nothing aside from his presence on their blue line. Right now, they’ve built up strength with their defensive depth since acquiring the former Penguin that’s helping fuel their outstanding record. And until something drastic changes — whether it’s the team’s play, a game-changing offer from an opponent, or another influencing factor — New Jersey should be enjoying the benefits of this stronger blue line. Management just has to keep in mind how to manage the ripple effect of Marino’s impact as the season progresses. 

Data via Evolving-Hockey, HockeyViz, AllThreeZones, HockeyStatCards and NaturalStatTrick.
This story relies on shot-based metrics; here is a
primer on these numbers.

(Top photo of Damon Severson: Sergei Belski / USA Today)


Related posts

Leave a Comment